Entering competitions requires a combination of strategy and realistic expectations. Even highly successful competitor Bernard Tschumi wins only one out of every four he enters.
Matt Greenslade Entering competitions requires a combination of strategy and realistic expectations. Even highly successful competitor Bernard Tschumi wins only one out of every four he enters.

Twenty-five years ago, Bernard Tschumi—a young architect known mainly for theoretical writings—entered a competition to design a new 60-acre park in Paris. It was an anonymous competition that drew more than 400 entrants. Having his entry selected, Tschumi said, “was like winning the lottery.” As construction of the park—called Parc de la Villette—was getting under way, Tschumi, who was already living in New York, became the dean of Columbia University's architecture school. After 15 years in that post, he returned to full-time practice, which again includes entering competitions. Recently Tschumi calculated that he has won about one-fourth of the competitions he has entered, an almost unheard-of rate. (In 2002 alone, he won five important competitions.) The results are taking shape in half a dozen European cities, including Athens, where his new Acropolis Museum, designed to house the famous Elgin Marbles, is expected to open next year.

Punch above your weight.

“What I learned from La Villette is that, for someone who is young and who has no experience, the only way to get big projects is through competitions,” Tschumi says. “Even now, with 35 people in my office, competitions are a way for me to get projects that would normally go to 200-person firms.“

Use competitions to explore ideas.

“If I were starting out today, I would develop a body of work that reflected my own interests and use competitions as a way of testing those ideas. When someone like Gregg Lynn or Asymptote starts winning competitions, it's because they've been doing the research for years. The competition is a way to apply what you've learned—never the other way around.”

Be wary of U.S. competitions …

In this country, Tschumi says, organizations use competitions to “see what a building might look like. Often, the program hasn't been figured out. They may not even have the money. In many cases, nothing gets built. In Europe, by contrast, they not only build the buildings, but they build them as designed. That's because in many countries, once you're selected, they cannot change the scheme. Winning creates a binding contract.”

… especially if they ask too much.

“There are competitions where they want to see every parking space and every duct,” says Tschumi. “Sometimes they ask for the equivalent of full schematics. If so, the organizers don't know what they're doing. Stay away.”

Foreign is fine. Americans are free to enter most overseas competitions, though sometimes it's necessary to partner with a local firm. That shouldn't be a problem for young architects today; as Tschumi says, “Everyone travels and knows people in other countries.” And language needn't be a barrier. “I've done competitions in China, where the documents had to be in Chinese, and I don't speak Chinese. Find someone who can work with you who speaks the language.”

Enter competitions—with low expectations.

In an open competition, “The odds of winning are slim, and you shouldn't forget that. But entering will help you build a portfolio and allow you to see your work alongside that of others of your generation. By entering the same competitions, you and your peers will start to have a conversation.”

Edit yourself.

“You have to be a very good editor. Don't try to put every idea you've ever had in one single project. Judges have 30 seconds to see your project; if it's not something that grabs their attention, it's not going to work.”

Volunteer to judge competitions.

That will help you get to know how judges think.

Pat yourself on the back.

“If I lose a competition with a weak project, after weeks or months of working around the clock, it's depressing,” Tschumi says. “But if I lose a competition with a great project, it's fine. Because I still feel good about the work.”